For three hours last week, the Highlands University Board of Regents met behind closed doors to discuss the possible acquisition of the College of Santa Fe, a private school that is suffering financial difficulties.
The state Open Meetings Act creates an exception for governing bodies to meet in closed session to discuss acquisitions of real property. The College of Santa Fe issue certainly would fall under this exception.
The reason for this exception to the Open Meetings Act is that it allows a government entity to negotiate for the best price possible for real property, which is in the public’s best interest. If negotiations for a particular piece of property became public, other buyers may announce their interest, thus driving up the price.
In this case, the state has issued a press release announcing Highlands’ interest in acquiring the Santa Fe school, so it’s nowhere close to a secret. The University of New Mexico was said to have been a candidate for acquiring the college, but UNM no longer seems interested.
In other words, Highlands appears to be the only institution looking to take over the college. That’s not necessarily surprising, given the College of Santa Fe’s financial position — a reported $35 million in debt.
While the regents are following the letter of the Open Meetings Act, they aren’t exactly acting within the spirit of the law, which promotes keeping public business just that — public. This acquisition is no small issue; indeed, it would be a sizable expansion of Highlands.
The attorneys involved have probably advised regents to keep the whole matter behind closed doors. But we can’t see any solid reason for following such advice.
After the closed session, Highlands President Jim Fries spoke with reporters about the acquisition process, but he revealed few details. This is too big a project to keep the public out of the loop.
Some parts of the discussion may need to be kept secret to preserve Highlands’ bargaining position, but we suspect that regents could conduct most of their discussions in public. And that’s exactly what they should do.